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tv   Forensic Files  CNN  June 16, 2015 11:00pm-11:31pm PDT

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-- captions by vitac -- in 1996, a fire broke out in a rental home in north carolina. one child died, another was critically injured. to the family, the fire was a mystery. to investigators, it was murder.
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>> tabor city, north carolina, a small, rural, sweet potato farming community in the western part of the state and home to the hinson family. joshua hinson and his sister, brittany, lived with their mother, terri, and her boyfriend, rodney strickland. rodney worked in construction. terri was a homemaker and student. on october 19th, 1996, rodney left to spend the night with his son in fair bluff about 15 miles away. terri's mother, bernice, came over to the house that night for dinner. >> i was there when she took brittany and josh upstairs to bed. as they were going upstairs to bed the last words i heard josh say was, "i love you." because he was just learning to talk. >> after bernice left, terri plugged in a space heater to
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heat the home since it was the first cold night of fall. she fell asleep on the sofa in the living room around midnight. at 4:00 a.m., terri was awakened by screams from her children. the house was on fire. the thick smoke and flames made it impossible to reach the children. the only thing terri could do was call the fire department. >> 911. >> the police arrived first, and an officer also tried to rescue the children. he, too, was unsuccessful. to clear the way, terri moved the space heater at the bottom of the stairs. by the time firemen arrived, the upstairs was almost entirely in flames. the children were rushed to the hospital, both in critical condition. >> it's really hard to recognize her as brittany.
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she was black from head to toe. and they told me when i got there they didn't think she'd make it. >> brittany was fortunate she survived the fire. tragically, 17-month-old joshua did not. >> they finally came out and said that he didn't make it. they did ask me if i wanted to see him. they suggested i didn't but that i could. they had to ask. and i didn't. >> you know, i really loved him a lot. i really loved him like he was my actual child. i loved him like that. i wanted my baby brother to at least have a long life because he didn't hardly even had a life. he was too young to die. >> when the fire was
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extinguished, local authorities found evidence that the fire started in the children's bedroom closet. at first, they thought brittany might have playing with matches. but when they looked into terri hinson's background, they uncovered information which made them suspect it might have been murder. the real question that needs to be asked is "what is it that we can do that is impactful?" what the cloud enables is computing to empower cancer researchers. it used to take two weeks to sequence and analyze a genome; with the microsoft cloud we can analyze 100 per day. whatever i can do to help compute a cure for cancer, that's what i'd like to do.
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brittany hinson, now 8 years
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old, remembers the horrible fire that burned through her home four years earlier. >> i was burnt all over and i had died and i was up in heaven. believe me, it's beautiful. >> her younger brother, joshua, just 17 months old, died in the fire. with any kind of house fire, officials try to identify the cause. generally, a fire burns longest at or near its point of origin, so the room with the most damage is usually where the fire started. most of the damage was in joshua's bedroom, which was at the top of the stairs. investigators found a v-shaped pattern on the wall in joshua's bedroom closet. it's a pattern that occurs when something combustible is against a wall. this discovery told investigators that the fire started on the closet floor and traveled up to the attic.
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a melted copper electrical wire was hanging from the attic, which investigators concluded had been burned in the fire and was not the cause of it. special agents from the north carolina state bureau of investigation and the federal bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms assisted in the investigation. they eliminated the nearby electrical outlet as the cause. when they couldn't determine how the fire started, they concluded that someone had set it intentionally with a match or lighter. >> i was told by the state agent that anyone who was in the house that night was a suspect. anyone who had been in the house that evening would have been. >> investigators first talked to brittany to see if she had been playing with matches that night. they were satisfied she had not. next, they wanted to know where terri's boyfriend, rodney, was at the time of the fire.
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>> rodney had plenty of alibis. he was back in fair bluff with his son, spending the night. plenty of people saw him. >> but investigators were most suspicious of terri, since she was sleeping on the sofa downstairs when the fire broke out instead of in her bedroom upstairs. and they also discovered that a few years earlier, she had given three older children up for adoption. >> the only reason terri let those children go was because she did love them enough to want the best for them. at that time she could not give them anything. not even a home. she didn't have a job. she didn't have a car. she didn't have no money. she didn't have anything. >> people made a leap from that event, the adoptions, to somehow that becoming a motive for killing her other child.
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>> witnesses also told police that at the fire scene, terri behaved suspiciously. >> her momma said that she had been depressed, said she had been bringing books over for her to read at night, and her boyfriend said she would sleep on the couch. >> they just didn't think terri was acting a way a mother would act if a child had been killed in a fire. there was just something wrong to them about it. >> she was blamed for the fire. she was blamed that she's the one who did the fire. she didn't do it. she didn't do a single thing. >> terri denied having anything to do with setting the fire. >> i was actually the only one considered. they had to eliminate brittany because she was a child that could have started a fire at that age. rodney couldn't be considered because he wasn't there. >> police arrested terri hinson and charged her with murder, attempted murder, and arson.
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and her nightmare continued when her own lawyer hired an independent investigator who agreed with the prosecution that the fire had been intentionally set. >> it took me a lot of time to realize my attorney wasn't going to help. i still held a lot of faith that he was going to do something, and i finally realized, okay, he's not. >> if convicted, terri could face the death penalty. leave early go roam sleep in sleep out star gaze dream big wander more care less beat sunrise chase sunset do it all. on us. get your first month's payment plus five years wear and tear coverage.
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for 61 days, terri hinson sat in a north carolina jail cell, waiting to be tried for murder and arson. eventually, terri was released on a $200,000 bond but remained under house arrest. and with no one else to turn to, terri conducted her own research into the fire that killed her son, joshua. it was slow-going, until terri found an article written by a fire investigator in sydney, australia. >> is it an accidental fire or arson? >> the article described common mistakes investigators make when
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determining the cause of a suspicious fire. specifically, it discussed the role of bias in fire investigation. for example, arson investigators tend to look for arson, and insurance investigators tend to look for insurance fraud. the article recommends that fire investigators have a scientific or chemical background. terri desperately wanted to get in touch with the author. >> i didn't understand e-mail. when i saw the little envelope thing on his page, i clicked on it and like a blank page pops up. for you to type in. i just assumed, okay, i can send this to him. i still didn't understand how he would get back to me. >> the author tony capth did respond. but since he lived in australia, he recommended dr. gerald hurst in austin, texas. dr. hurst earned his ph.d. in
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chemistry from cambridge, and he agreed to look into terri's case. >> homeowners burning the house down to kill their children, pretty rare. very rare. >> terri sent dr. hurst every piece of information she had about the fire. after reading through it, dr. hurst was struck by how incomplete the local investigation had been. >> i decided to concentrate on the attic, precisely because they had said almost nothing about the attic in the investigation report. the attic was a complete revelation. >> the insulation in the attic was made up of ground-up newspaper treated with a flame-retardant chemical. dr. hurst checked local weather conditions, and he discovered that hurricane fran had passed through tabor city, north carolina, just six weeks before the fire.
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terri said torrential rains from that hurricane leaked through the roof and caused water damage in the ceilings. dr. hurst also found a melted 50-year-old electrical wire in the attic insulation. terri told hurst there had been some electrical problems on the night of the fire. her curling iron had been going on and off earlier that evening. and when she moved the electric space heater for the firemen, she remembers it was cold to the touch. >> i picked it up with both hands. i just slid it out of the way. and later is when it dawned on me that that heater should have been very hot. it had been turned on full blast. >> that meant the heater had gone off at least a half an hour before she became aware of the fire.
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>> dr. hurst and fire investigator ken gibson flew to north carolina to inspect terri's home firsthand. they did not believe the fire started the way the government investigators said. taking charge of their type 2 diabetes... ...with non-insulin victoza. for a while, i took a pill to lower my blood sugar, but it didn't get me to my goal. so i asked my doctor about victoza. he said victoza works differently than pills, and comes in a pen. victoza is proven to lower blood sugar and a1c. it's taken once a day, any time. and the needle is thin. victoza is not for weight loss, but it may help you lose some weight. victoza is an injectable prescription medicine that may improve blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes when used with diet and exercise. it is not recommended as the first medication
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well, it's really very simple. innocent people are being put into prison or forced into plea bargains for fires they did not start. >> after terri hinson was charged with arson and murder in the death of her 17-month-old son joshua, her only hope was a scientist she found through the internet. >> jerry hurst is one of these guys who kind of comes out of left field and can actually save the day in this case. >> the findings of the state bureau of investigation and the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms rested on the theory that the fire started on the floor of the bedroom closet. and when the cause couldn't be found, they concluded the fire had been deliberately set. >> atf, they call themselves arson investigators. the state, they call themselves arson investigators. that's what they're looking for, arson.
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that's what they train for, that's what they go to school for, is to catch arsonists. what you want is a fire investigator to determine what caused the fire. >> dr. hurst found evidence that the roof leaked in terri's rented home. and tests revealed it washed away the flame-retardant chemicals on the paper insulation. he also found evidence of electrical malfunctioning. on the day of the fire, mysteriously, terri's curling iron was going on and off. and during the fire when terri moved the space heater, it was cold to the touch. this indicated the heater had not been on for at least a half hour before the fire. the heater was plugged into a line originally designed for 15
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amps. in the fuse box was a 30-amp fuse which had blown out. >> that means that you're carrying more power through that wire than it was designed to carry. and when you overload it, it heats, it gets hot. >> cold snap, a 1500-watt appliance on a line that had never seen that high a wattage before, and the question became, did that electrical line over the top of the closet feed the heater? because if it did, you had a correlation, you had a potential cause and effect situation. >> and that is exactly what he found. the cable in the attic fed the outlet used by the 1500-watt space heater and the curling iron. >> that's what really frosted the cake for us. we had an origin, a cause that could not be disproved
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scientifically, and we had a connection between the differences in what was done that night and what had been done before. and that gives you a very strong presumptive case for an accidental fire. >> dr. hurst believes several factors created the chain of events that culminated with the fatal fire. water from the leaking roof washed the flame-retardant chemicals off of the paper insulation in the attic, and further eroded the 50-year-old electrical cable. over time, as the rainwater hit the exposed portion of the electrical cable, it arced, burning the wooden attic beam and leaving behind char marks or carbon tracks. wood does not conduct electricity, but carbon does. dr. hurst believes that when
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terri plugged in the 1500-watt space heater that night, it heated the electrical wires in the attic, which arced. those sparks touched a carbon track which ignited the paper insulation just above joshua's bedroom closet. >> a wooden ceiling with an already well-built fire that suddenly breaks through produces a holocaust in no time at all. >> the fiery debris from the attic fell through the hole in the ceiling onto the floor of the closet and did not start on the floor and burn upwards, as local investigators suspected. ken gibson believes that the fire officials rushed to judgment. >> anything that doesn't fall into the theory that this was part of how the arsonist started the fire, to them, it's not evidence, it's just something that's there. >> dr. hurst sent the local
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prosecutor his critique of the government's investigation which said their conclusions were based on junk science. >> not only is there a badly melted and arced wire, it had arc marks on it, which could have been caused by the fire. but which could also have initiated the fire. no way to tell. and that wire passed across dead center in the hole in the ceiling. quite a coincidence. >> to his credit, the district attorney studied dr. hurst's report, conducted his own investigation, and dropped the charges against terri hinson. but by the time it was all over, she had lost her home, her child, and nearly her freedom. because of an inaccurate conclusion drawn from faulty science.
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>> the fire investigation in general is the swamp of forensic science. in fact, many forensic scientists refused to recognize arson investigation as a sub-field of forensic science. >> there's people sitting in prison that have gone what i've gone through but they didn't have the help, they didn't know how to get it, they didn't have the money. and that's not fair. >> terri hinson cherishes her freedom and the time she spends with brittany. yet terri thinks of joshua every day. >> i look around and i see him everywhere. we ran, we played, we had the dog to play with. he'd swing out of his tree. it's not fair.
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